Epistemology, Metaphysics

In Book I of On the Nature of Things[1], Lucretius provides arguments for the existence of two main things that exist: matter and the void. Further, he argues that there are no other types of things besides these.

First, Lucretius asserts that matter is known to exist by means of sensory perception. We see matter, we interact with it, and thus it must exist. He argues immediately for empiricism by saying that sensory perception must be the “unshakable foundation” (423) from which an epistemology begins. Otherwise, he says, any talk of what is unseen is meaningless, for it is only in contrast with sensory perception that we can reason about anything that is outside of our view. That is, we cannot make any sense of talk about what is hidden from view without having a view in the first place, and thus what we see in our view must be the case. So, matter exists.

Secondly, we observe some important traits about the matter we see. First, it is always situated somewhere. Second, it can be moved from one location to another. Both of these require the existence of space, what he calls the void, for things always move or are located in something. Lucretius refers back to a few lines before this passage[2], in which he has argued that without space existing between material objects, their force of obstruction would constantly be acting upon each other and there would never be movement at all. He also, in these earlier lines, anticipates an objection on the grounds that fish swim through water seemingly unobstructed. Here, Lucretius argues that water must give way and create space for the fish, thus in order for there to be movement the space must be ontologically present, in modern terms.

Next, Lucretius argues that there must be nothing else besides matter and void. His reasoning is simply that anything else that one may describe, in an effort to posit a third constituent of being, can be shown to be either matter or void. This is done by Lucretius by asking whether or not this new entity is tangible. If it is, and is “susceptible of even the lightest and faintest touch” (433), then it must add to the aggregate matter of the universe and thus count as matter itself. If it is not tangible, however, then it is nothing but “that empty space which we call void” (438). This amounts to the claim that everything exists is either tangible, and is therefore matter, for everything that is tangible is matter, or is intangible, and is therefore void, for everything that is intangible is empty space, that is, void.

Lucretius’ argument for the existence of matter is an ontological an epistemological argument, stating that matter must exist because we cannot meaningfully talk about anything besides matter without first admitting matter into our ontology. However, it is somewhat anthropocentric in its approach, since it relies on what human beings, or perhaps any sentient being, can talk about or count as existing, not what fundamentally exists independently. In this sense, Lucretius is merely categorizing entities into two groups, based on whether or not they are tangible. Since everything is either tangible or not tangible, due to the laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, everything can rightfully be said to fall into one of these two categories.

One can rightfully be sceptical of Lucretius’ claim that everything that is intangible is empty space. The tradition of philosophy before and after him posit many so-called intangible objects which are thought to be more than the void. Among them are the forms, or universals, which are thought by Plato to have greater reality than material things. Meanwhile, talk of God or gods both before and after Lucretius often involves an immaterial but certainly active being. Lucretius goes on, beyond this brief passage, to deny that anything can act upon matter without being corporeal[3], but more work must be done to overthrow alternative thought on this matter.

Yet, we can still praise Lucretius for a simple but elegant approach to two formidable views. The simple approach to an epistemological foundation predates the rampant empiricism of the modern era, and even reminds one of Quine‘s naturalized epistemology in its reductionist (and dismissive) approach. The view meanwhile that space counts as some entity in itself, and is needed for the situation and locomotion of matter is one common in modern science, if still debated. One can easily read contemporary developments into Lucretius’ ancient words.

 


[1] T. Lucretius Carus. On the Nature of Things. Trans. Martin Ferguson Smith. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. Lines 419-440.

[2] Lines 335-345 and 370-383.

[3] Lines 440-444.

Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy

In his Mind and World, McDowell contrasts three positions in his concerns with spontaneity and intentional states in general. These are what he calls bald naturalism, rampant platonism and naturalized platonism, the last of which he defends. What McDowell calls ‘bald naturalism’ I will argue for, but I will refer to it more favourably, as ‘naturalism proper’.

The proper naturalist position counts the mind as part of the world, as McDowell wants to do. What a naturalist proper cannot coherently talk about is the Kantian subject. Instead, there are only objects. For those who would say that things are only objects in the sense that they are the object of some subject, then we may use the word ‘substance’, in the earlier Greek sense, to talk about physical things. Thus, the naturalist position is that everything is a substance; in Heidegger’s terminology, everything is essentially present-at-hand[1] and though further supposed properties or features of substances (readiness-to-hand, the existence of Dasein, the mind, intentionality, subjectivity) are reducible to that raw substance. In contemporary physics, that substance is identified with particles, though the details may be somewhat more complex than that[2]. The manifest image of the world[3], the normative space in which intentionality and morality are thought to lie, is composed of that same physical substance that makes up the brains of those who experience and project outwards.

So, for the naturalist proper, the space of reasons is not a realm outside of the natural or physical world, as it is in rampant platonism, nor is it an autonomous space within the world as it is in McDowell’s naturalized platonism. Rather, all rationality, normativity and intentionality is identical with brain states. There is no one space of reasons with which human beings have a connection; rather, each human being can be thought to have their own space of reasons. This space is not especially private, though. It can be seen physically by examination of the neurological states of the brain, and with the proper technology, those states may even be translatable into intelligible images. In another sense, it is not fully private, since glimpses into its content can be seen through behaviour.

‘Content’ needs qualification in that last remark. Intentional mental states are mental states that are about something else in the world. But they are neither a metaphysical link through some imaginary (or real) space to other substances which they are about, nor are they really representations of the substances they seem to be about. They are not the former because such space doesn’t exist in any important way. They are not the latter because, of course, the neurological features of our brain do not form a structure that mimics the outside world. Rather, they form a structure that allows us to have a mental state (which is identical with that brain state) such that we think we have a representation of the substance we are thinking about. So, when I close my eyes and picture the CN Tower, I do not obtain or summon some representation of that object. That object may be gone, moved, or different than I remember. Instead, my brain generates a certain arrangement such that it looks like the CN Tower to itself.[4] All of the qualia, ‘what it’s like to be’[5] and private world phenomena that philosophers expect to find in a separate mental world are  merely what the brain’s activity looks like from the point of view of that very brain.

Against the rampant platonist, the naturalist’s response is brief. Whatever attitudes one has towards the empirical observations with which one is presented, one does not survive without indulging in them. With a proper account of naturalism, any reason to favour a platonic account dissolves. Naturalism proper offers an explanation of intentionality, removes the “spookiness” (McDowell 92) of a separate space of reasons that McDowell complains of. We don’t need to add anything ontologically, and we have a hope to answer the how questions about mental states and intentionality through study of the brain. Spontaneity doesn’t need any explanation here, either, because it is not sui generis, if it’s counted as existing at all. We’re better off with the naturalist account.

Against McDowell’s naturalized platonism, the proper naturalist has to say that McDowell is wrong about naturalism. He argues against his ‘bald naturalist’, saying that “knowing one’s way around the space of reasons, the idea of responsiveness to rational relationships, cannot be reconstructed out of materials that are naturalistic” (McDowell 77). But the naturalist proper doesn’t want to reconstruct a space of reasons, really. The naturalist proper holds that all reasoning, all intentionality, all communication—the entire manifest image—takes place between physical substances across physical substances. The naturalist isn’t committed to reconstructing any intentional state beyond this because she doesn’t hold it to exist. What counts as intentionality for a naturalist proper is evidenced through behaviour, and it consists of a brain processing incoming information. The space of reasons, the finer points of language, art, morality, knowledge and so forth can be talked about as abstractions. They are useful in the processing that the brain must do; they result in digestible inputs. But the naturalist proper is ever-mindful that these are not things in themselves, but that they are always identical with and reducible to the states of the brain. The same holds of spontaneity. The naturalist counts human judgments to be determined (in a deterministic or indeterministic sense[6]) by the physical processes that cause them. Thus, spontaneity can be said either to not really exist, or at least to be denied status as sui generis, as is the case with the other ideas McDowell wants to preserve. Where McDowell wants to say that human beings are free to choose their beliefs, to take their experiences and spontaneously form judgments about them, the proper naturalist denies this. For the naturalist proper, sometimes brain states will have the disposition to respond to the stimulus of a red bench and form the belief that there is a red bench. Sometimes, because of other beliefs, brain states will not have such a disposition and will not form such a belief. Whether or not this happens is not an act of spontaneity, but a function of the states of the brain, including the stimulus received and the beliefs already held.

By positing an autonomous space of reasons, and a second nature with which humans can access it, the naturalized platonist gains little in the way of explanation and much in the way of recalcitrant philosophical questions. McDowell thinks that he gets out of the “threat of supernaturalism” (78) by saying that scientific advancements don’t clarify nature as a whole, but only the realm of law. This step does not work; it only redefines “nature” to include what the naturalist counts as supernatural. McDowell renames nature as the realm of law, says that the platonic heaven, the space of reasons, also exist, and says that there’s this new thing, now called nature, previously called existence, which encompasses all of them. The connection between the realms of laws and reasons is as sketchy as ever, and it is only through proper naturalism of intentionality and spontaneity that the confusion is finally dissolved.

 


[1] See: Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. p. 98; p. 69 in the original German.

[2] String theories and wave-particle duality in physics play a role here, but they are beside the point. Scientific skepticism about what substances are physically is important. Equally important is the fact that extra-physical phenomena haven’t turned up at all. That is, the naturalist account is the best lead we have.

[3] From Sellars.

[4] …because we are always our physical selves and are never apart from our brains.

[5] From Nagel.

[6] Indeterminism as is afforded by quantum mechanics offers a sort of natural spontaneity, but it is not immediately clear how, or even if, this would impact judgments.

Epistemology

Do you know that this is a barn?

A good old fun topic: luck in epistemology.

If you’re familiar with the study of knowledge, you may know that, traditionally, knowledge is defined as justified true belief.

However, not all philosophers agree with this assertion. Edumnd Gettier famously created what’s known as the “Gettier problem”, by presenting some examples (the Gettier counterexamples, as they are known) of instances of justified true belief that do not correspond with our intuitive notion of knowledge.  Since that time, more examples have surfaced that closely resemble what we would normally call knowledge, but challenge the traditional definition.  I’ll use one example that was not given by Gettier, which I think sums up the idea of luck in epistemology very well.

Carl Ginet of Cornell University provides this example of lucky knowledge.  He imagines that a person, Henry, is driving down a country road and sees a barn.  In his mind, he forms the belief that he sees a barn.  His belief is justified, because the object he sees appears to be a barn — it matches his understanding of what a barn is, how a barn looks, etc.  His belief is also true, because what he sees is, in fact, a barn.

However, things are more interesting than that.  For, in the area that Henry finds himself, the locals have an odd hobby.  They like to construct facades of buildings, which, from the road, appear identical to actual buildings.  In fact, the majority of the things that look like barns from the road are not actually barns, but wooden facades that only look like barns.

Now, here’s the problem.  Henry has a justified true belief that he sees a barn, which, in the traditional account, means that he knows that he sees a barn. But it’s only by sheer luck that Henry is actually correct in his belief.  If Henry had happened to be looking at any of the other barn-like objects in the area, he would have been wrong.  This begs the question: Does Henry really know that he is looking at a barn?

If you answer “yes” to that question, then consider the following.  Suppose that someone next to him is familiar with the area, and tells Henry that, “actually, the people in this area construct facades of buildings, and most of the things that look like barns around here are, in fact, not barns.”  If Henry is told this, but nobody confirms that he is actually looking at a real barn, does he still know that he is looking at a barn?  It would seem that his true belief is no longer justified — given what he now knows about the area, he doesn’t have a good enough reason for believing what he previously knew to be true.

Did Henry go from knowing something to not knowing it? If so, than to what degree is knowledge dependent on our state of mind?  If not, did he ever know it, and can we ever know something luckily, or are there other qualifications to knowledge other than it being justified and true?

Duncan Pritchard, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, performs what is probably the first thorough examination of this concept in his book, Epistemic Luck.

I’ll leave it at that, for now, to bring up the idea of epistemic luck.  It’s something that I’ll be keeping in the back of my mind this year as the epistemology topics come up.  I’ll be beginning my second year tomorrow, which, fortunately, has a greater focus on philosophy than my first year.  I’ll probably come back to this idea in a later post, as epistemology is one of my favourite areas of philosophy.

PHOTO CREDIT: iowa_spirit_walker / CC BY 2.0